SACRAMENTO, CALIF. – Punched in the mouth so hard by DeMarcus Cousins and the Sacramento Kings that they really might have heard ringing in their ears, the Timberwolves picked themselves up off the canvas Saturday night in Sacramento before ultimately losing 106-103 at brand-new Golden 1 Center.
Three nights after they lost a 17-point lead and the game in their season opener at Memphis, the Wolves squandered an 18-point second-quarter lead this time, were outscored 31-12 in a third quarter their peeved coach called an “abomination” and trailed by as many as 10 points early in the fourth quarter.
But with point guard Kris Dunn on the floor down the stretch with the starters instead of injured Ricky Rubio (sprained elbow), the Wolves rode Andrew Wiggins’ playmaking and rediscovered some moxie to tie the game three times in the final 4 ½ minutes before Kings guard Ty Lawson’s three-point shot with 1:10 left helped push the Wolves away for good.
Until they found some fourth-quarter courage, the ringing the Timberwolves might have heard in their heads at third quarter’s end was not necessarily the giant cowbell being rung on a concourse at the new arena.
It came from Cousins’ smash-mouth play on a night when he alternately bullied and finessed his way to the rim and delivered a 29-point, 7-rebound performance before he fouled out with 37.2 seconds left, his team leading 105-101.
“He’s a big boy,” Wiggins said. “He’s a big load down there.”
With Cousins fouled out of the game and trailing 105-103, the Wolves had the ball after a timeout with 7.5 seconds to go and a chance to win the game with a three-point shot. But Wiggins’ long two-point shot missed and so did Gorgui Dieng’s rushed, off-balance putback as the final second ticked off.
An 0-2 season start is not what these Wolves had in mind.
“That wasn’t enough, man,” Dieng said afterward at his locker stall next to teammates Wiggins and Zach LaVine. “Just coming back wasn’t enough. We lost two games already. We just try to win. That’s all that matters to me right now. We invest a lot of stuff this summer to try and get better. The time is now. This is my fourth year, Wigs third year, Zach’s third year. There are no more young puppies here. We just have to man up and play harder.”
Cousins’ teammate Rudy Gay scored 28 points himself and together the two veterans evenly split the 20 points they scored from the Kings’ 31 in that third quarter.
“The third quarter was a problem,” Thibodeau said. “A big problem.”
The Wolves’ big men burned through foul after foul trying to keep Cousins away from the rim, with little success as the game went on until Cousins took himself off the stage by getting whistled for two quick fouls at game’s end.
Dieng, Cole Aldrich and Karl-Anthony Towns, none of them could approach the strength of a seventh-year pro whom Thibodeau helped coach with the 2014 U.S. World Championship and 2016 U.S. Olympic teams.
“We have to get a lot tougher, that’s what I see,” Thibodeau said. “Everything: Mental toughness, physical toughness, emotional toughness, all aspects of it. Every team has two or three primary scorers and they’re going to put pressure on you and you have to respond. It’s not any one person’s responsibility. It’s the entire team. We have to get tied together and have discipline.”
The Wolves trailed 96-87 with fewer than seven minutes left when Rubio injured his elbow and left the game. Dunn replaced him for the final 6:28, but the Wolves scored the next eight points and three times tied the game without ever being able to take a lead.
They did so after Thibodeau often put the ball in Wiggins’ hands far away from the basket, a decision that allowed Wiggins to see the floor and create plays with the game on the line.
“I think it worked pretty good in the fourth quarter,” said Wiggins, who followed 25 points scored in Wednesday’s opener with a 29-point night Saturday that included eight in the fourth quarter. “So if Thibs wants to put it in, put it in. In the post, they can always put hands on me. When I’m out top handling the ball, hands have to be off.”
Thibodeau said he played Wiggins essentially as a 6-8 point guard not because Rubio was out injured.
“That’s part of what we’re going to do for him in the fourth quarter,” Thibodeau said. “He’s a very good pick-and-roll player. He can get something out of that.”
It worked, but wasn’t enough to stop the Wolves from starting the season 0-2 while the Kings improved to 2-1.
“We’ve got to be tough the whole game,” Wiggins said. “Our first two games, we started out punching them. We started the game aggressive. Then as the game went on, it slowly went away. We took our foot off the pedal.”